For psyches, Gulf is Valdez on ‘fast forward’

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

CNN’s Jessica Ravitz reports that the damage to Gulf communities in the wake of the spill has played out like a faster version of the disintegration of Cordova, Alaska, in the wake of Exxon Valdez. Unfortunately, she writes, that doesn’t mean a quicker route to recovery. It just means a deeper dive into discombobulation and destruction. Ravitz profiles the local victims and those reaching out to help them. In the process, she paints a bleak long-term picture.

Concern about communities sends [environmental sociologist Steven] Picou on an 80-mile drive west to Bayou La Batre, a small fishing town on the opposite side of Mobile Bay. He’s traveling around the Gulf Coast to where people are hurting – to start conversations, impart what he’s learned and teach people how to listen to each other. It’s a response modeled after programs devised in Alaska.

“Unlike a natural disaster where you have a therapeutic community emerging to help you rebuild, we know that in Alaska a corrosive community emerged,” he says. “All of a sudden you have this incredible collapse of community capital.”

He describes how people may self-isolate to cope and how their distrust of others will grow and likely spread. Cynicism about BP, he says, will move on to the federal government, the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, local governments, neighbors. Even family.

Ravitz looks at the strong sense of community now present in these places and whether the changes wrought by an influx of new people and money from BP will be permanent. She also reports that domestic violence shelters and hotlines are busier than ever as stress builds and and oil workers, who used to be away from home for weeks at a time, are now stuck on land.

For its part, BP has so far declined a request from Louisiana for $10 million for mental health aid for its residents. Catholic Charities is waiting to hear from BP about another grant that includes about $1.2 million for counseling. Peer-to-peer counseling programs, in which local residents are trained to reach out to other community members, have been launched. One mental health worker says people who were affected by Katrina have been “re-traumatized” by the oil spill.

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